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University Honors Capstone: A Project Four Years in the Making


It is often difficult for students to pick a research topic, especially when they are given the freedom to research anything they want, but sometimes a topic is found unexpectedly. Fall semester, Bri Dingmann, a biology major, enrolled in a class called Honors Encountering Death and Grief taught by Mitzi Doane. It was in this class, taken to fulfill requirements for University Honors program, that she found something that sparked her interest. "I was terrified of this project until last semester. After I talked to Mitzi about taking on this research, it all fell into place."

Less than 2% of UMD undergraduates are accepted into the University Honors (UH) program. One requirement of UH is that students complete a capstone project, which is the culmination of their UMD education experience. Many students might find the idea of a four-year research project daunting, but that is not the intent. To help, the students take small steps for the project early. “Getting started early is not meant to scare them. It is meant to get them thinking about ideas they would like to research,” says Jessica Saxton, program coordinator for UH. She explains that students don’t pick their final topic until their junior year, but having them think about it their freshman and sophomore years helps them find a topic and acts as a reminder, so the project doesn't sneak up on them.

Each year the students talk to different faculty members who they might like to have mentor them in their research. It is required that every student has a mentor who does research in the field that the student is interested in. The student can also choose to make a UROP their capstone project.

When picking their topic of inquiry, students are allowed to research any topic they want. "Most students choose a topic that relates to their major, but we encourage students to broaden their views and go outside their field of study," says Saxton. Two students who have chosen to explore outside of their disciplines this year are Bri Dingmann and Holly Grissman.

UMD student Bri Dingmann  
UMD Senior, Bri Dingmann  
UMD Senior, Holly Grissman  
UMD student Holly Grissman's capstone project aquaponic system  
Grissman's Aquaponic System  
Those Who Can, Duluth  

Compassion Surrounding Family Death
Dingmann is looking at UMD's policy for excused absence surrounding death of a loved one. As a biology major, Dingmann struggled to find an appropriate topic. "If I would have decided to do research in my field, most of the options are doing research in a lab, and that isn't something I wanted to do."

The current student bereavement policy at UMD is vague and difficult to find, which has caused problems for a large amount of students at UMD, including Dingmann. "When I was a sophomore, my grandfather died, and I didn't know what my options were. Many professors only provide students with one day of missed class." To further delve into this, Dingmann created a survey for her project and sent it out to the student body. "We were hoping for 300 responses, and we ended up getting 627. It was hard to read some of the terrible experiences people had trying to miss school for a funeral."

Dingmann is working hard to see a change in this policy before she graduates in the spring. In order to get her plan in motion, she has teamed up with UMD student body president, Kimmy Newton. "We want to put a more specific policy in place, and we would like to do so before Kimmy's term ends in April," says Dingmann. Even if she does not see this policy put in place before she is done at UMD, Dingmann has plans to make sure it is accomplished. "I will pass my research on to Mitzi, and Kimmy will pass everything on to her successor."

Dingmann is excited that this project will be helping so many people at UMD. "After we sent out the survey, I had multiple people come up to me and tell me their stories and express their gratitude that I am working to make a change," says Dingmann. "It's been really awesome, and I have found a true passion for this topic."

A Study in Aquaponics
Holly Grissman, a communication major, is researching the benefits of aquaponics. "I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do for my project when I was a freshman. My boyfriend, Tou Yang, is very passionate about pursing a career in aquaponics, and I decided I wanted to understand more to help him reach his goal," explains Grissman. It didn't take long for her to take interest and see the importance of this research. "I enjoy studying things outside of my major, and even though this research is outside of my major, it's not outside of my life."

Aquaponics combines aquaculture, or raising aquatic animals, with hydroponics, growing plants without soil. The system rotates feces from the aquatic life into the grow bed and it is used for fertilizer. The plants then complete the nitrification cycle and the water is filtered back into the aquarium of fish. "The goal of aquaponics is to reduce the pressure of over farming and over fishing with a sustainable system," says Grissman.

She has made a big commitment to this project including starting her own aquaponic system with her boyfriend in their apartment. "It is 38 by 18 inches and can hold 18 gallons of water in the grow bed and 150 gallons of water in the turtle tank. Right now we are growing salad bowl lettuce. One of my goals is to have lettuce for people to see and taste on the day of the presentation."

Working with Dr. Randel Hanson, Grissman has spent a lot of time researching and working towards understanding more about aquaponics. "I did a lot of online and book research, and I also had the opportunity to tour two aquaponic farms in Wisconsin," says Grissman.

Grissman is grateful for the chance to do such extensive research. "You have an opportunity to become an expert in something and take that with you after college."

Presentation of Findings
Soon all the senior UH students will get to share and talk about their findings. “At the end of their senior year, the students write a 20 to 30 page paper and present their findings in poster form to the public,” explains Saxton. Grissman expresses her excitement for the presentations. "For four years you have professors teaching you, but the day of the presentation the student becomes the teacher." This year’s Capstone presentations will take place on Tues. April 22 from 4:30 to 6 pm in the Kirby Ballroom. The event is free and open to the public.












Written by Katherine Revier Apr. 2014


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